I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Sunday, December 20, 2009

More Snow, More on Snow

Well, the snow began at about 3:30p Friday and has only become heavier since! I honestly scoffed some at the Weather Channel’s dire prediction of 28 inches yesterday, but if this doesn’t let up soon, I’ll be eating crow by suppertime. The upshot is that both Fanny and I have the day off, and letting the two Chihuahuas out to do their business is quite a hoot. (We had to shovel a path from the door to the trampoline, which still has some earth exposed beneath it...they’ve appreciated that!)

We concluded yesterday with how the snow, as a result of God’s speech, provided a simile for the efficacy of God’s inspired speech in his Word—neither returns empty handed, but accomplishes all their divine appointments. However, snow, in its whiteness, occupies both extreme poles of the moral/spiritual continuum in Scripture. Snow-whiteness is as much a symbol for the impurity, contamination and ceremonial uncleanness of sin as it is a symbol for God’s transcendent holiness and purity. This can seem strange to us.

Figuratively, snow is used as an image of relation-destroying uncleanness. Snow-like whiteness is a property associated with the various dermal maladies, all of which fall under the term “leprosy” in the Bible. Descriptively, a kind of snow-whiteness depicted the leprosy of Moses (Ex 4:6), Miriam (Num 12:10) and Naaman (2 Kings 5:27).

Leprosy, signified by its snow-whiteness, made one unfit for worshipping God; it severed a person from the covenant community, “He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Lev 13:46). Nothing and no one were safe from the inflicted; house and wares were ever in danger of the infectious spread (14:37ff). The effects of leprosy were totalizing; it destroyed one’s relationship with God and his fellow man, and contaminated every thing that came in contact with it. In addition to the priests’ declaration of a person’s uncleanness, the infected one was commanded to make the self-pronouncement, confessing, “Unclean, unclean!” for all to hear (13:45).

As snow-whiteness is a signifier for leprosy, leprosy is a signifier for something even more odious, human sin and depravity. The tedious attention to leprosy in the Bible points beyond the ritual to a reality. That the effect of leprosy is illuminative for sin can be seen by simply surrogating leprosy with sin in the above paragraph. Sin alienates us from God and others, leaving us with the sense of the inhuman solitude, like standing alone in a silent, snow covered prairie with no interruption in the ghastly trance of its whiteness.

In striking contrast to the snow-whiteness of our defilement and corruption, we also read of the blazing holiness of the Ancient of Days, as he takes his seat for judgment: “His clothing was white as snow, and his head like pure wool” (Dan 7:9). Likewise, Jesus, at his transfiguration, “And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can whiten them” (Mk 9:3 KJV). The angels at the empty tomb also wore “raiment white as snow” (Matt 28:3). And Christ the Lord, again, standing as the priestly King amidst the seven golden lampstands. “The hairs of his head were white as wool, as white as snow” (Rev 1:14).

We find God’s snow-like whiteness most often in apocalyptic literature, especially Revelation. In terms of biblical geography, the mystique and almost transcendent quality of snow and its whiteness is not difficult to understand. The idea of snow’s purity and “cleanness” is reflected in Job’s words, “If I wash myself with snow water, and make my hands never so clean...” (9:30).

This afternoon, Beaner came in from playing for hours in the snow with her friends. After about an hour of being back inside, she started to get a headache. The cause was obvious, those hours of looking at the blazing whiteness of the snow were more than her eyes could handle. Thanks to God, the headache is easing.

In this, we can start to begin to understand the biblical writers’ use of snow-like whiteness in reference to God’s ineffable glory and holiness. Although for some of us, the snow is a more commonplace thing, for the biblical writers is provided an elevated (literally, since it generally only capped surrounding mountaintops, such as in Lebanon) word-picture for the holiness of God, upon which no man could gaze and live.

In chapter 42 of Moby Dick, Melville digresses to discuss the “Whiteness of the Whale.” Melville makes a panoramic survey of objects that possess the property of great whiteness; from the various idols of worship among the heathen to the fiercest of wild beasts, all of which are enhanced and intensified in either their honor or terror by the agency of their whiteness. Melville wrestled the same question that is before us: How can snow-like whiteness be a symbol for both the abominable corruption of leprosy/sin, yet at the same time God’s daunting holiness and purity? Melville adds, “But not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul; and more strange and far more portentous—why, as we have seen, it is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christian’s Deity; and yet should be as it is, the intensifying agent in things most appalling to mankind.”

What are we to make of this paradox and what does it teach us?

Fanny believes that the commonality in the snow-like whiteness metaphor, with its strikingly polar objects (our defilement over against God’s holiness) lies in the primary biblical denotation of “sanctification.” The image provokes and illustrates a stern “set-apartness.” On the one hand, we, in our leprous sin, are set apart as “Unclean, unclean!” On the other, the snow-whiteness of God’s holiness sets him infinitely apart from his sin-cursed creation. This makes sense.

And I think there is a practical application in this. For Melville’s Captain Ahab, it was, in part, the Whale’s whiteness that antagonized the seaman’s irrational hatred for the great Albino. Is this not an applicable indictment for us as well? Consider Calvin’s words, asking, “For what man is not disposed to rest in himself?” He continues.

“[I]t is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until we have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also—He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced. And since nothing appears within us or around us that is not tainted with very great impurity, so long as we keep our mind within the confines of human pollution, anything which is in some small degree less defiled, delights us as it were most pure: just as an eye, to which nothing but black had been previously presented, deems an object whitish, or even of a brownish hue, to be perfectly white...Thus, too, it happens in estimating our spiritual qualities” (Institutes, I:1, 2, emphasis mine).

So long as we are content with the folly of measuring ourselves among ourselves. Using the rule of corruption (2 Cor 10:12), we shall always find satisfaction in ourselves. As the snow that covers my spotty brown lawn gives the pretense that, what lies beneath it equals the quality of my neighbor’s lawn, so too the deceitfulness covering of my snow-like uncleanness, my sin, often fools me into believing that my character is reflecting the snow-likeness of God’s own holiness. Moreover, just as Ahab found the Whale’s whiteness a source of great anxiety and agitation, we are naturally antagonized by the dazzling splendor of God’s own holiness, his Whiteness.

How pathetic then is our condition. We would strain to bring order and peace to a chaotic home, yet we want nothing of Perfection. We spend millions each year on bottled water, in order to avoid impurities, yet we despise the Pure. We ironically love to “put the bitter for sweet and the sweet for bitter” (Is 5:20).

Next time, we’ll look for the biblical answer for how this dilemma is ultimately and relationally resolved, how our—however paradoxically is sounds to us—our snow-like corruption can be made “White as snow.”

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